Words, images tell stories

Published 11:59 pm Friday, October 23, 2009

Sarah, who is 9 and a fourth-grader, recently was required as part of her Alabama history class to interview someone who had lived here at least 20 years. She chose my father, known to her as “Grandaddy,” who gave her a 70-year perspective.

“When I was a little boy and would spend time in the country with my grandparents during the summer, Grandmother would worry if the “rolling store” could get to their house on Tuesday morning if it had been raining much. When the rolling store came, some people would trade eggs or chickens for something the rolling store was selling. The rolling store man would then sell the eggs or chickens to someone down the road. If the roads were too muddy and the rolling store could not travel on them, my grandparents could not buy any groceries or kerosene for the lamps that week unless the mud dried out and they could drive to town later in the week.”

When I read the interview, I immediately thought of an interview I’d recently read about Woodie Long, the noted folk artist who died earlier this month.

“I wanted to write my memories down,” Woodie told author Kathy Kemp of his early work. “I had a lot to say, you know. But it was just too hard for me to do. I can talk a million miles an hour, but I can’t write. So I thought, why don’t I paint ‘em?”

Long was one of 12 children of an alcoholic sharecropper, who went to work in the fields each day when most children went to school. Much of his work features happy yellow school buses, which represented a wonderful place he imagined other children went while he went to work every day, he told one interviewer.

As I’ve thought about Daddy’s word memories and Woodie’s picture memories over the past couple of weeks, I’ve wondered if one of the reasons I fell in love with Woodie’s art was because they provided visual images of the stories I’d often heard.

“A lot of people still came to town on horses or mules and wagons,” Daddy wrote. “They would tie the animals behind the main street stores where there was a watering tank for the horses and mules. Lots of people would come to town on Saturdays. They would sometimes stay all day and go home late at night on those dark, dark roads. They would come back the next Saturday and do the same thing again.”

For those familiar with the south end of the county “town” is Florala, and “the country” is between Lockhart and Damascus. It takes no time to get from one to the other now, but it seems as if it was a world away for a child in the 40s.

He also wrote about the impact “Big Jim” Folsom had on the state by paving roads – which no doubt improved his grandmother’s chances of seeing the rolling store. Many times I’ve heard him tell stories about Big Jim’s campaign stops in Florala, and the impression the 6-foot-8 man made on an 8-year-old by downing a jug of buttermilk in a long gulp.

In my mind’s eye, I can take the written description of those days, “When I was a child we went almost anywhere playing with our friends … our parents didn’t worry about us. If we did something wrong some adult would scold us or maybe tell our parents and we would be in real trouble,” and imagine a gang of little boys riding their bicycles to town and watching a really big man drink buttermilk before being entertained by Folsom’s hillbilly band.

There must have been some of that little-boy awe left, when as an adult, Big Jim visited his sister in Elba, and Daddy had opportunities to sit and hear him tell stories about Alabama.

In our family, we have heard stories, read stories, and seen wonderful photographs that have helped us understand our parents’ formative years. Woodie’s family – and indeed the rest of the world – has seen happy paintings that allow us to imagine the best of his growing-up world.

As fortunate as I feel to know so much about family history, there was one memory that made me wish Daddy could paint: “At grandmother’s house we took our baths in a big tub sitting in the backyard. Granddaddy would get water from the well sometime after lunch and sitting in the sun all afternoon was the only heating our bath water ever got.”

I hope your family is capturing the memories, too.